Film review: IDA, from Built For Speed

Despite its meagre budget, the superbly shot, powerfully acted Polish drama Ida is one of the finest films so far this year.  Set in the 1960’s, this story of faith, family, guilt and grief, bitterly reflects on a turbulent period in Poland’s post-war history.

Like the recent Philomena, Ida sees a naive religious woman takes to the road with a cynical atheist in search of lost family; Ida, however, is a much more grim film than Philomena.  Agata Trzebuchowska plays trainee nun Anna who, before being allowed to take her final vows, must visit for the first time her only remaining family member, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza).  Her aunt, who is a prosecutor and a once high-ranking communist party official, reveals that Anna is in fact Jewish, that her real name is Ida and that her parents were the victims of atrocities in the Second World War.  Seeking some sort of closure, the two travel to their former home town hoping to discover Anna’s parents grave.

With its remarkable black and white cinematography and understated mood, Ida recalls the  tense atmospheric films of classic post-war Polish realist cinema as well as the religion-themed works of great auteurs like Carl Dreyer. We are introduced to Anna to in an exquisite and mesmerizing sequence depicting her daily devotional rituals that evokes the ethereal mood of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Even more striking than the film’s visual style is its depiction of the relationship between Wanda and Ida.  Wanda is a harsh, bullying , authoritarian drunk who constantly baits and chastises Ida over her devotion to the church.  In the face of this and the revelations about her family’s fate, Ida is superficially stoic but internally conflicted. 

Both leads are terrific but Agata Kulesza as Wanda is the stand-out delivering one of the most astonishing performances of the year.  She at first makes Wanda a heartless, manipulative and extremely unlikeable person but through Wanda’s increasingly self-destructive behaviour Kulesza brilliantly reveals a person harbouring a tragic and unbearable secret.  It is testimony to a great performance that Kulesza turns around our attitude to her character.

The film is also a fascinating cultural document of 1960’s Poland with its grim urban landscape and rural poverty as well as flashes of hope and even romance with the appearance of a vibrant jazz band playing Coltrane masterpieces.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski who previously showed tantalising promise with the ultimately unsatisfying head-scratcher The Woman in the Fifth, seems to have harnessed all his skills as he creates with Ida, a compelling, tightly scripted, visually stunning, emotionally moving story of humanity in the face of despair.

Nick’s rating: ****1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Pawel Pawlikowski.

Release date: 22nd May 2014

Running time: 80 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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